HIS long, patient wait in the wings is held up as one of M K Stalin’s biggest strengths. But at 63, there is a time to wait, and there is a time to act. For nine months now, the DMK heir-apparent has been on a state-wide tour, criss-crossing its 234 constituencies. His newly acquired brand managers, some of whom have worked with Narendra Modi, call the Namukku Naame campaign “One of the largest movements of participatory democracy in Tamil Nadu’s history”.
Come voting day, his supporters tell you, the three rounds of road shows and rallies and dozens of interviews will pay off. As Stalin rises from a customised poll van, like any Tamil Nadu leader worth his salt, at Vellore’s Mandi street on May 11, the cheering crowd of over 4,000 hails, “Thalapathi, Thangathalapathi (beloved general), future chief minister of Tamil Nadu.”
Strategically placed members of his brand team take photographs from terraces around, as at least four floodlights focus on Stalin. The man himself stands at the middle of a square surrounded by banners and cutouts of him and father M Karunanidhi, with any other DMK signs virtually absent.
In a party with a long and bitter fight for succession, this is a decisive new phase. Says a close aide, “Although Stalin respects his father’s supremacy, he controls the party now. Almost all the district-level functionaries including those in Madurai are with him.” Madurai was the stronghold of the other son, M K Alagiri, who has receded into the background in this election.
As part of the image rebuilding, Stalin has shed the usual white shirt and veshti of Tamil leaders, and is seen in colourful shirts and T-shirts, jeans, even track pants and sports shoes. There have been casual walks around villages, careful cradling of babies, tea at roadside shops, travels on autorickshaws and cycles, mingling with bus drivers, and even a symbolic session under a banyan tree listening to people’s problems.
On Tuesday, Stalin sprang another surprise, visiting Tirukotiyur Narayana temple at Thiruppathur in Sivaganga district. Since the DMK swears by atheism, Stalin explained that he came to the temple only to see the inscriptions of Vaishnava saint Ramanujar.
Stalin also stands out from the field for being the rare DMK/AIADMK stalwart facing no major charges.
Arumugam, a 55-year-old supporter who has come 80 km for the Vellore rally, wishes Stalin had been declared the CM candidate. Wondering whether the omission wouldn’t hurt the DMK, he says, “Had it been the son of any other political leader, he would have captured power long back. But Thalapathi is not even demanding the CM post publicly.”
Unlike other Tamil Nadu politicians, Stalin’s speech is devoid of drama, and goes directly to the issues at stake. According to a senior IAS officer who worked under Stalin when he was the deputy chief minister, that is true of the 63-year-old’s style. “Stalin is not his father in terms of his political and literary talents. But definitely he is efficient and more transparent. Even if his wife or her family makes a demand, he would allow us to ignore them and go by our discretion.”
It’s only when he gets around to talking about AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa that Stalin allows himself some flourish. Introducing Karthikeyan, the DMK candidate for Vellore, he says, “Jayalalithaa made 54 promises in the 2011 elections, 48 during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.” Imitating the Chief Minister, he asks of her, “Have you fulfilled any of them? How many have you fulfilled?”
Delighted at the crowd response, his aides point out that in her own rallies, Jayalalithaa has spared only Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Stalin.
P Ramajayam, a senior political analyst with the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Trichy, says Stalin is unlike other political descendants. “It would be unfair to compare him to Rahul Gandhi or G K Vasan or Anbumani Ramadoss. Ever since the Emergency, when he was arrested and severely tortured, Stalin has been active in the party. Ahead of his active entry into politics in the mid-’70s, a five-member party committee was formed to clear it,” he says.
Stalin has been an active politician since, but for a brief stint as a TV actor in the 1980s.
As for his celebrated patience, sources close to the family say there was a time both Stalin and Alagiri would demand that their father step down. But unlike the impulsive Alagiri, Stalin used relatives to plead his case.
A senior leader adds that now Stalin has come to realise that power will come to him when his father is ready. “He still can’t get the party to implement his decisions,” the leader points out. “For instance, Stalin didn’t want A Raja, Dayanidhi Maran or Kanimozhi to attend poll campaigns in this election. But though he kept them away from his rallies, all are were there with Karunanidhi… Karunanidhi still retains his power even if the party is controlled by Stalin.”
Wary about how the succession tussle in the DMK will play out, many partymen are also keeping their safe distance. Leaders in districts admit they have been instructed by the party headquarters to avoid bursting crackers during Stalin’s trip, and not have any overt displays of affection.
At times, the 63-year-old has himself turned away leaders. Actor-turned-politician Khushboo is a case in point. “She was forced to join the Congress after Stalin started sidelining her, seeing the crowds at her meetings,” says a DMK leader. During the Namukku Naame campaign too, second-level leaders complained of being kept in the dark.
In this new push, some see the wheel coming full circle. Whispers in the party say that behind the changes is an increasingly powerful son-in-law, V Sabarish, 45. Three days ago, Stalin even issued a clarification that neither Sabarish nor son Udayanidhi Stalin, 38, had political ambitions.
As Stalin breaks into an MGR song at the end of his Vellore rally — swaying his head like the superstar with the longest political shadow in the state — that is a script they have heard before in Tamil Nadu.